Ronald Isley Biography
Formed Family Group, Established T-Neck Label, Hit Musical Stride, Proved Staying Power, Selected discography
Singer/composer Ronald Isley has enjoyed a successful career in popular music for more than 50 years. As lead singer and composer for the Isley Brothers, Isley recorded a long string of hit singles including "Shout," "This Old Heart of Mine," "It's Your Thing," and "Don't Say Goodnight," and more than two dozen gold, platinum, and multi-platinum albums. The Michigan Chronicle noted that "The Isley Brothers have one of the most distinctive (and enduring) sounds in the history of R&B, largely due to the amazing voice of Ronald Isley." Over the years Isley has worked with musicians as diverse as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart, and R. Kelly, which is testament to the Isley Brothers' musical prowess. Neil Strauss of the New York Times wrote that "In the mercurial world of pop music, surviving (while remaining relevant) can be a form of genius. This makes the Isley Brothers … as close to genius as any other pop act." Strauss added that "Ronald Isley is one of pop's most passionate and sensitive singers, wooing and seducing in a soft, liquid falsetto."
Formed Family Group
Isley was born on May 21, 1941, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Kelly and Sallye Bernice Isley. As a teenager, Ronald and his brothers O'Kelly, Rudolph, and Vernon sang in Cincinnati area gospel choirs. In 1955, the brothers formed their own quartet. After the death of Vernon in a bicycle accident, the Isley brothers stopped performing for a year or so and then revived their act as a pop trio.
The Isley Brothers moved to the New York City area in 1957 and made their first recording, the doo-wop styled "The Cow Jumped Over the Moon," for the Teenage label. They also recorded a few singles for the Gone label. While their recordings didn't sell, the Isleys earned a reputation as exciting live performers in engagements at African American oriented venues such as the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and the Regal Theatre in Chicago. An appearance at Washington, D.C.'s Howard Theatre was attended by RCA Records producer Howard Bloom, who signed the brothers to a contract.
The Isley Brothers' first RCA release, "Turn to Me," went nowhere but their second release, "Shout," was a huge hit on the rhythm and blues chart in 1959. Written by Isley and his brothers, the song was inspired by a line in the Jackie Wilson song "Lonely Teardrops." The Isleys' version of "Shout" was only a minor hit on the pop charts, but a successful cover version by Joey Dee and the Starlighters in 1962 made the song familiar to a wider audience. The money brought in by "Shout" enabled the Isleys to move the rest of their family, including two younger brothers Ernie and Marvin, from Cincinnati to the New Jersey suburbs of New York City. "I was only seven years old when 'Shout' came out," Ernie Isley told Geoffrey Himes of the Washington Post, "but I remember it always got the audience up and dancing—and it still does. Everybody has an emotional connection to that song, because it contains everything rock 'n' roll is about—the energy, the freedom, the abandon."
After "Shout," the Isleys released several records that didn't make a dent on the charts. For a time, it seemed that the Isley Brothers were just another of the "one-hit wonders" that were so common in the music world of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The brothers left RCA for Atlantic Records, where they worked with the songwriting/producing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. However, they still didn't find success. The situation improved when they moved to Wand Records in 1962. Producer Bert Berns had the Isley Brothers record a cover version of his own composition, "Twist and Shout," a song that had been recorded in the previous year by the Top Notes. A catchy blend of the raw energy of "Shout" with the Twist dance craze, "Twist and Shout" took the Isley Brothers back to the top of the R&B chart and was a much bigger hit on the pop chart than "Shout" had been. The song was also a hit in Britain, where a version was recorded by the Beatles. Ronald once admitted that the Beatles version of the song was better than the Isley Brothers take on it.
Again, the Isley Brothers couldn't release a follow up hit to "Twist and Shout." In 1963, they left Wand for United Artists Records. After the failure of their initial United Artists single, "Tango," the Isleys were instructed by company executives to record a ridiculously exploitative song called "Surf and Shout" that also failed. Isley did not regard this early adversity as a negative experience; instead he remained focused on the learning opportunities each had label offered.
Established T-Neck Label
In 1964 the Isley Brothers started their own label, T-Neck, taking the name from the family's adopted hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey. Ronald served as T-Neck's president, while his brothers Rudolph and O'Kelly were vice president and treasurer respectively. The Isley Brothers first T-Neck release, "Testify," featured the playing of a young and unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. At the time, Hendrix was going by the name of Jimmy James and was part of the Isleys' touring band. When their T-Neck work quickly proved unprofitable, the Isley Brothers re-signed with Atlantic Records. However, they were dropped by the company a year later.
Seeing promise in the Isley Brothers, Motown Records president Berry Gordy signed them to his Tamla label. At Tamla, the Isleys worked with the songwriting/producing trio of Holland, Dozier, and Holland. This trio was a major force behind a number of Motown sensations, including the Supremes. Although the Isleys' exuberant, gospel-tinged style didn't quite mesh with Motown's smooth style, the collaboration did produce a major hit, "This Old Heart of Mine," in 1966. The Isleys spent most of the late 1960s in Britain, where they were somewhat more popular than in the United States. The Isley Brothers had several hits in Britain, including "I Guess I'll Always Love You" and "Behind a Painted Smile," which were released on Tamla.
In 1969, the Isleys turned their attention back to the United States and revived their T-Neck label (in conjunction with Buddah Records) so that they would be able to record and produce their own material. The Isley Brothers' first T-Neck release that year, "It's Your Thing," soared to number two on the pop charts and earned a Grammy Award for best R&B vocal by a duo or group. Following the success of "It's Your Thing," the Isleys expanded the group to include younger brothers Ernie and Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper. The younger members brought in a hard rock, guitar-based sound influenced by Jimi Hendrix.
By having their own record label, the Isley Brothers were free to experiment. In addition to their own songs, the Isleys recorded cover versions of material written by white singer/songwriters. Their recording of Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" was a hit in 1971. In 1974, the Isley Brothers reached number 16 on the British pop charts with a version of Seals and Crofts' "Summer Breeze." "We turned a lot of heads around in those days," Ernie Isley told Himes. "We started our own record label when Black acts didn't do that; we recorded songs by Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, and Carole King when Black artists didn't do that; we played our own instruments when Black groups didn't do that. When you bought an Isley Brothers album, the people on the cover made all the sounds on the record inside."
Hit Musical Stride
After making a distribution agreement with Columbia Records, the Isley Brothers reached the height of their popularity during the 1970s. In addition to successful singles including "Who's That Lady?" in 1973 and "Fight the Power" in 1975, they had five platinum albums: 3 + 3 (1973), The Heat is On (1975), Harvest for the World (1976), Go for Your Gun (1977), and Showdown (1978). "While the band didn't get the massive publicity exposure of many rock and soul headliners, its exciting live performances and the quality of most of its recordings retained a strong hold on a large segment of the pop audience," wrote Irwin Stambler in The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul.
Success continued for the Isley Brothers into the early 1980s when they scored a top 40 pop single "Don't Say Goodnight" from the platinum selling album, Go All the Way. Their album, Between the Sheets, went gold in 1983. In 1984, the three younger members left the group to form Isley-Jasper-Isley. Ronald, Rudolph, and O'Kelly returned to being a trio and signed with Warner Bros. Records. Tragedy struck the Isleys when O'Kelly died of a heart attack just weeks after their first Warner Bros. album, Masterpiece, was released in 1986. The following year, Ronald and Rudolph recorded the album Smooth Sailin', which included the tribute song to O'Kelly, "Send a Message." The album also brought Ronald to the forefront as a solo artist.
On Smooth Sailin', Ronald worked closely with singer/composer/producer Angela Winbush. Winbush also collaborated on the Isley Brothers 1989 album Spend the Night, which was essentially a solo album for Ronald. The title cut from Spend the Night became a major R&B hit. In 1993, Ronald married Winbush. "We were friends first, then he became my manager. We developed a real strong relationship," Winbush told Jet. The couple later divorced amicably, and Isley married singer Kandi Johnson in 2004.
Proved Staying Power
In the 1990s, Rudolph Isley left performing to become a minister, and Ronald reformed the Isley Brothers with his younger brothers Ernie and Marvin. Their 1996 album, Mission to Please, gave the Isley Brothers their first gold record in more than a decade. Three songs on the album, including the hit single "Let's Lay Together," were produced and co-written by R. Kelly, who credits the Isley Brothers as a major influence on his musical style. Kelly happened to be working on an album of his own at the same time he was working with the Isley Brothers, and he asked Ronald to contribute vocals to the album's song "Low Down." He then cast Isley as the gangster-like character, Mr. Biggs, in the "Low Down" video.
Throughout most of his career, Isley has been plagued by poor financial management. In 1997, after being handed a $5-million bill for back taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service, he declared bankruptcy. In February of 2000, after lengthy legal proceedings, Isley's assets, including royalties to his musical compositions, were purchased by financier David Pullman. Under the agreement, 15- and 20-year bonds backed by Isley's share of the royalty income would be sold by Pullman. At the end of the bonds' term, the royalty income will revert back to Isley or his heirs. But worse news came in 2005, when Isley was convicted of tax evasion and faced incarceration.
Despite these difficulties, Isley continued to perform and record with his brothers Ernie and Marvin while waiting for sentencing. He often incorporated the Mr. Biggs character into stage shows. In a review of a performance at Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall, Esther Iverem of the Washington Post wrote, "Mr. Biggs is just an entertaining celluloid wrapping, one that gets mucked up as soon as Isley pours on his hot chocolate tenor and a falsetto that trails to a whisper. The show fused slick '90s marketing and '70 show-manship…. Mr. Biggs is a powerful image that draws young fans attracted to wealth and power and older fans who simply like to see a man dressing sharp." Isley parlayed his Mr. Biggs alter-ego into a fur collection. He was intimately involved in the design details of the coat collection that showcased "his distinctive sense of style and flair for fashion," according to the New York Amsterdam News, when it was introduced in 2004.
In an article highlighting the various phases of the Isley Brothers musical journey, the Michigan Chronicle reminded fans that "you can count on one hand the groups that go back as far as the Isley Brothers," but added that "As long as people can be assured of hearing the voice of Ronald Isley, the continuance of the group is a certainty." With new albums released in the early years of the 2000s, Isley continued to bring enthusiasm to his music and fans responded. Eternal (2001), which sold more than one million copies, and Body Kiss (2003), which sold almost 800,000 copies and landed within the Billboard 200, entertained audiences with Isley playing Mr. Biggs. Billboard reviewer praised the first single from Baby Makin' Music, "Just Came Here to Chill," for being "as vital as the day these guys first got it going." Isley once told iMusic.com that he and his brothers "have been very blessed with the opportunity of making music for many years but the truth is, we haven't even scratched the surface yet." Well into his 60s, Isley had yet to show any signs of retiring.
Shout, Collectables, 1959.
Twist and Shout, Sundazed, 1962.
This Old Heart of Mine, Motown, 1966.
3+3, T-Neck, 1973.
Live It Up, T-Neck, 1974.
The Heat Is On, T-Neck, 1975.
Harvest for the World, T-Neck, 1976.
Go for Your Guns, T-Neck, 1977.
Between the Sheets, 1983.
Smooth Sailin', Warner, 1986.
Spend the Night, Warner, 1989.
Beautiful Ballads, 1994.
Mission to Please, 1996.
It's Your Thing: The Story of the Isley Brothers, Sony/Epic, 1999.
Eternal, Dreamworks, 2001.
Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach, Dreamworks, 2003.
Body Kiss, Dreamworks, 2003.
Baby Makin Music, DefJam, 2006.
Hardy, Phil and Dave Laing. The Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
Rees, Dafydd and Luke Crampton. Encyclopedia of Rock Stars. New York: DK Publishing, 1996.
Stambler, Irwin. Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.
Billboard, June 27, 1992, p. 13; August 28, 2004, p. 67.
Jet, May 23, 1994, p. 37; July 19, 1993, p. 38; November 21, 2005, p. 20.
Michigan Chronicle, July 14, 1999, p. D1.
New York Amsterdam News, May 13-19, 2004, p. 19.
New York Times, July 29, 1996, p. C16; November 13, 2003, p. E3.
Precinct Reporter (San Bernardino, CA), June 28, 2001, p. 7.
Sentinel (Los Angeles, CA), November 3-9, 2005, p. B5.
Washington Post, March 10, 1996, p. G1; September 20, 1996, p. N14; September 23, 1996, p. D7; July 30, 1999, p. N16; February 22, 2000, p. C1; February 24, 2000, p. C12.
Washington Times, November 18, 2003, p. B5.
DefJam Recordings, www.defjam.com.
iMusic Index, www.imusic.com.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, www.rockhall.com.
Yahoo! Music, http://musicfinder.yahoo.com.